Although Marvel and Disney’s Black Panther was a production masterpiece, without a single doubt, it was definitely not revolutionary for the American Film Industry.
2018’s Black Panther has often been termed as the first mainstream superhero of an African descent in Hollywood, and though it is true as far as the comics are concerned, Chadwick Boseman’s titular character is clearly not the first on screen representation of the Black community in the world of Superheroes.
Referring to Black Panther as the same would be an insult to these other greatly popular superheroes in the world of films:
1. Blade [1998, 2002, 2004]
Wesley Snipes’ Blade is literally the first name that comes to mind when we think of the beginning of the era of modern superhero movies. If we look at Hollywood’s transition from the classic Superman films of the 80’s to the modern X-Men of 2000, Blade marks an important milestone in the journey. In 1998, Blade became the first Marvel Comics character to have a successful big-budget screen adaptation. The vampire hunter eventually became Snipes’ signature role.
What’s interesting is that Snipes spent years trying to adapt a Black Panther film himself, but the project never seemed to substantiate. Regardless, Blade’s popularity did end up paving the way for Marvel’s biggest black superhero, 20 years later.
2. Nick Fury Jr. 
Although originally a caucasian, Marvel reimagined Nick Fury in a more contemporary appearance in the year 2000, with their Ultimate Marvel line of comics. Interestingly, the creators modelled Fury’s appearance on the coolest African-American alive: Samuel L. Jackson. Eight years later, when Marvel started production of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, guess who ended up playing the role?
You guessed it! Sam Jackson himself! (A definite improvement from when David Hasselhoff played Fury in a 1998 TV movie)
Ever since his cameo in the first Iron Man film in 2008, Jackson has been the commander of S.H.I.E.L.D in the MCU, and the supreme leader of the Avengers, right up until Avengers: Infinity War.
3. Steel 
In 1997, Warner Bros. partnered with Shaquille O’Neal to capitalise on his widespread popularity and released a hopeful cinematic rendition of the unpopular DC character of Steel. In the comics, Steel, aka John Henry Irons, was one of DC’s several replacements for Superman after The Death of Superman story arc in the early 1990s.
As one would imagine, Steel was a massive failure, both critically and financially, and has a rating of 12% on Rotten Tomatoes even today.
Producer Quincy Jones says “Steel represents a role model. Instead of a superhero, let’s just call him a ‘super human being.'”
4. Spawn 
A comic book superhero independent of DC or Marvel, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn created a corner of its own in 1992, achieving worldwide fame in no time. This quick popularity led to a live-action film in 1997 starring Michael Jai White in the title role of Al Smith. Spawn brought a dark supernatural edge to the superhero genre, as well as a rare African American solo hero capable of selling as many copies as Batman. Unfortunately, even the talented martial artist White failed to capture the uniqueness of McFarlane’s art.
McFarlane is currently looking for an R-rated reboot for Spawn, as a supernatural thriller and not a superhero movie. Nevertheless, Spawn did precede Blade as one of the very first superhero movies to feature a black character as the lead.
5. The Meteor Man 
In the early 90’s, Robert Townsend, most famous for his movie industry satire Hollywood Shuffle, visualised a standalone black superhero comedy, and ended up writing, directing, producing, and starring in and as The Meteor Man in 1993. Townsend plays school teacher Jefferson Reed, who is struck by a green meteorite, much like Superman’s Kryptonite and turns into a superhuman very much resembling Superman himself. What sets him apart though, is that he’s a hero trying to save his community, as opposed to the world.
Despite all its generic flaws, The Meteor Man was an enjoyable film with the right amount of altruism and encouragement to do good.
Fun fact: The Meteor Man was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film, but lost to Jurassic Park.
6. Storm (X-Men) 
The African weather-controlling powerhouse Storm has always been one of the most iconic parts of the X-Men, especially since her over-the-top portrayal in the beloved 90’s animated series. An in-her-prime Halle Berry was the obvious choice in 20th Century Fox’s new X Men series starting in the year 2000, which has been around for almost two decades now. But apart from the first film, Storm was rarely more than a cardboard cut out in the franchise, as compared to her superior importance as a teacher in Professor X’s school in the first film.
Storm also had one more trait in common with Black Panther. Unlike most of the other Black American heroes, Storm’s origin was actually in Africa (Egypt, to be precise), as shown in the 2016 film X-Men: Apocalypse.
7. Hancock 
Starring Will Smith as the eponymous character, Hancock turned the superhero genre on its head and showed a man hellbent on NOT being a superhero. With superhuman abilities that mimic DC’s Superman, one would believe a character to act in such a way that audiences can aspire to be them, but Hancock was nothing like that.
What Hancock showed the superhero film industry was that there is a lot of new superhero potential out there. Filmmakers should be looking to create new characters rather than adapting 50 year old comic heros over and over again. While Hancock wasn’t a critical success, it still earned big bucks worldwide, and it proved that black superhero movies could still be worthwhile bets for major studios.
Special Mention: Catwoman 
Even though Warner Bros.’ Catwoman was a disastrously distorted adaptation of the DC character, it was still the first standalone Hollywood film featuring a superhero who was black AND a woman. Halle Berry’s feline heroine’s alter ego is a new character called Patience Phillips, instead of the original Selina Kyle from the Batman Universe.
Catwoman is an iconic DC character and antihero, and giving her a solo film made all the sense in the world at the time. Couple that with making her black, and it’s something completely unheard of. If only it had a better script, Berry’s Catwoman could have been one of the most historic motion pictures of all time.
Nevertheless, it still goes to show that Hollywood had been thinking of bringing black comic book characters onto the big screen long before Black Panther hit theaters. And even though some of these were either terrible adaptations or had bad scripts, they still paved the way for MCU’s 2018 blockbuster.